Secrecy claims as first ‘Western civilisation’ degree announced

Staff, council and senate at Wollongong ‘did not know talks were under way’

December 17, 2018
Statue of Plato
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An Australian university agreed to host a controversial degree on Western civilisation without putting the proposal to its academic senate or university council.

University of Wollongong staff representatives say they have been blindsided by the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the philanthropic Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which has pledged the university more than A$50 million (£28.5 million) to bankroll the new degree and associated scholarships.

The agreement makes Wollongong the first university to reach terms with the Ramsay Centre. The Australian National University terminated talks in May, citing academic autonomy concerns.

Negotiations with other universities – notably the University of Sydney – have attracted bitter opposition from staff, who have attacked the degree as colonialist and elitist.

Georgine Clarsen, Wollongong branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union, said the negotiations had been conducted in “haste and secrecy” and presented as a “fait accompli”. She said potentially affected staff had first learned of the discussion from media coverage of the agreement on 17 December.

Dr Clarsen, a senior lecturer in history and politics, said she had been unable to find any colleagues who had known that talks were even under way. She said that the administration’s apparent failure to put the proposal to the senate was a clear breach of governance, since course approvals were routinely brought before the senate. 

Dr Clarsen questioned why the agreement had been revealed a week before Christmas while the sector was bracing for cuts in a federal mini-budget. “Given the great controversy surrounding the proposal to establish the Ramsay Centre at other institutions, colleagues are shocked they have not been consulted,” she said.

The NTEU has demanded the public release of the MOU. National president Alison Barnes said taxpayers were entitled to know whether the Ramsay Centre would determine curriculum or course content and who would select staff and students.

“Secretive discussions may avoid controversy,” she said. “However, this approach is not compatible with the goals of academic freedom that define a modern university.”

The university said that it had respected the Ramsay Centre’s instruction to treat the negotiations confidentially. It said it did not normally release MOUs publicly because of the “commercial confidentiality implications”, and that the Ramsay MOU was “no different in these respects” from many other agreements.

A spokesman said MOUs were not normally submitted for approval by the University of Wollongong council, and that the new course would “go through established internal approval processes”.

The university said it had “learned from the experience of other institutions” in its engagement with the Ramsay Centre. “UOW established a small team to undertake constructive discussions, which quietly addressed all matters related to academic freedom, governance and autonomy from the outset,” the spokesman said.

The university said that the curriculum had been designed in-house and then “refined” in consultation with the Ramsay Centre. It said Ramsay representatives would not have deciding votes on staff recruitment committees, while scholarship recipients would be selected by both organisations.

The University of Queensland, which is also negotiating with the Ramsay Centre, said it intended to consult from late January following a “constructive” meeting with the centre’s board. “Both parties [agreed that] a partnership on the right terms for both UQ and the Ramsay Centre is desirable and achievable,” a university spokeswoman said.

“The university was clear that independence with regard to academic decisions is a red-line issue. This point was recognised and understood by the Ramsay board.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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How is Western civilisation defined ? What are the core texts proposed?

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